Fresh pulls of espresso waltz through a cold September morning, dancing alongside a particular brand of nervous excitement. It’s a certain hum I’ve come to understand as unique to the start of bikepacking trips and the suckers who choose such endeavors as their vacation. Strangers who will become good friends in a few short miles clear the frogs from their throats to answer early morning queries about their hometowns, bike set-ups, and handlebar tchotchkes over hot breakfast burritos and steamy lattes slung by Autobahn Coffee as we all wait for the start of the Salsa Cycles Ochoco Overlander.
“This is not a race but it is going to be challenging, so pace yourselves.” James Good, owner of Good Bike Co., a shop in the heart of Prineville, OR, announced at 7:30 AM as he prepared 50 giddy riders to roll out together. Our route would entail a 200-mile semi-supported bikepacking adventure through high desert prairies, backwoods gravel and the kind of dirt forest roads you’ve mostly only dreamed about.
The Ochoco Overlander is a four-day, fully catered bikepacking event that provides participants an opportunity to ride a difficult route through remote terrain late in the year, when most natural water sources are dried up in the high desert. With the promise of hot meals, cold beer, and entertainment at camp each night (not to mention mid-day aid stations), the wild frontier becomes a bit more inviting. Riders are still responsible for navigating the route, carrying what they need for the day, and keeping their own bikes dialed. Held in mid-September of 2022, the 4th Annual Overlander did not disappoint, and in many ways was much more than a bike event; it was a celebration of friendships forged in and fortified by the saddle.
Day 1 would include 63 miles with +5,300′ of elevation gain and our cohort of eager riders with fresh legs headed out from Good Bike Co. then meandered up the Crooked River Canyon into the event’s namesake Ochoco National Forest. Riders rolled into camp at Antelope Reservoir, met by smiling volunteers and event staff. The afternoon light waned while new and old friends shared stories over cold ones and CBD Elixirs provided by Boneyard Beer.
Folks pack and pitch their own sleeping set-ups, rendering the campground an adorable sea of colored tents and touring rigs perched up against trees. A perk of the Overlander is that riders can bring one backpack to be ferried to camp for them each day. With that, some chose to leave the ultra-light bivy at home and ball out with the family chalet and their après lifestyling gear, like heavy-ass Carhartt overalls or a set of Blundstones. Bikepacking, but make it luxurious. A full spread was laid out for dinner, featuring enchiladas, salad, and dessert. The night sky bragged about its own beauty, the Milky Way doing her thing while campers gathered around the fire, serenaded by the sweet tones of Alia Fern’s voice and acoustic guitar.
A frosty-golden morning, Day 2 started with sore legs and smiling faces. The smell of espresso wafted up through camp from the Volkswagen bus café while Bhakti Earth Yoga guided crusty-eyed cyclists through a morning stretch sesh. Breakfast was a smörgåsbord of hot leftovers from dinner, freshly scrambled eggs, and bagels. Riders packed up their gear, shoved the extra overalls and family sized tents into backpacks and rolled out of camp.
The route partied on through expansive grass plains and ranch land, serving up 50 miles and 3,400 ft of elevation across varied road surfaces. Just when riders began questioning life choices during a stretch of deep, soupy washboarded gravel, the road morphed and a freshly tarmacked dream sent the group into Deep Creek Campground frothing for more.
Tents were pitched and friends flicked shit about who snores loudest and why they’re still riding buddies, even living hundreds of miles away from each other nowadays and riding at much different paces. It’s impossible to ignore these moments of bonding and the ways bikes connect us deeply, beyond the ride itself. Another delicious hot meal served, beverages enjoyed, and anecdotes from the day traded around the fire.
Thick morning fog sat high in dense trees as riders welcomed the day with coffee, breakfast, and yoga. The third day presented the option of a 26-mile or 49-mile ride. Both options went up and over Mt. Pisgah—with a high point near 7000’—with an optional out-and-back to the lookout tower, a techy jaunt well worth the view.
It’s a choice location to indulge in a nip of commemorative Ochoco Overlander 2022 Strong Whiskey, individual bottles of the special firewater were hidden on each rider’s bike the night before. The descent from Mt. Pisgah was a rowdy-good time, a highlight of the route for folks with roots in mountain biking and a desire to get a little weird on the bike. There is no feeling quite as silly and exhilarating as boosting off a tiny root or grabbing some G’s in a high-speed road berm on a loaded drop bar bike. Riders then veered onto a forest road (aka hero dirt) then the route made another turn onto smooth pavement, carrying us into camp at Walton Lake for the last night together. Campers took advantage of the sunny afternoon, dropping a line in the lake or maxing out around the fire.
The final day was a 48-mile ride with about 2,725′ of elevation, rolling right back to Good Bike Co. in Prineville. Riders took in the gorgeous Mill Creek Wilderness and enjoyed a glorious aid station posted up at a truly mind-blowing viewpoint. Someone even threw down an Ochoco Oyster – the signature treat of the Overlander – consisting of a banana with Nutella and various toppings, to be consumed as an oyster on the half shell would.
Bittersweet is the last bit of scenery as the route descends through the forest and then farmland on the outskirts of town. Used up bikes and bodies trickled back into Good Bike Co. where they were rewarded for completing the journey with custom Overlander stem bags from Swift Industries.
An after party ensued at the bike shop, complete with a taco bar and live music. High fives, hugs and conversations full of “Will I see you here next year?” and “Let’s keep in touch, it was fun riding with you!” were exchanged. Amidst goodbyes and bikes being loaded, a different yet specific hum is in the air now. A hum that I’ve come to know as unique to finishing a bike tour. It’s a heavy weight remembering that your life is a crud-ton more complicated than just pedaling and eating. You simultaneously feel breezy and light as a feather, having done something so simple that also required digging to the deepest part of your being to muster up the will to rotate your cranks, no matter how loudly your legs screamed. Perspective is a valuable benefit of bikepacking.
Fortuitous Friendships and Putting the Emphasis on Common Ground
The coolest part of participating in such an event is that you get to ride and socialize with folks from a bunch of different backgrounds on a wide range of bike set-ups whom you otherwise might not find yourself spending four days with in the woods. People are marvelous. We all have complex histories, experience, and wells of knowledge distinct to our own paths. I couldn’t help but notice the ways that this event, specifically, has been a needle to thread and that’s sewn up new and unlikely friendships while tightening some old stitches between longtime pals.
I chatted with fellow rider, R.J. Dulay, as we ate tacos and basked in the last moments of the event before returning to society. He got into cycling in 2018 after his interest was piqued by photos of randonneur bikes, leading him down the gravel/adventure cycling rabbit hole. The idea of riding gravel roads reminded him of playing in the forest as a kid on a bike and by the end of that summer, he was that kid again. A fan of The Path Less Pedaled on YouTube, R.J. got stoked on the Overlander after watching Russ’s video covering the 2019 ride. He signed up for the 2021 edition and liked it enough to talk his buddy Jordan Thurston into it for 2022.
Originally from Oakland, CA, Jordan lives in Livermore and works as a firefighter. He and R.J. met back in 2014; their wives were on a rowing team together in college at Washington State. They’ve stayed connected despite physical distance, relating over basketball and coffee, fatherhood and cycling, and most recently, woodworking. Jordan’s bike story starts with him getting a fixie. He rode it around town for a minute, a short-lived phase he traded for indoor cycling. “I didn’t like the cliquey/bougie atmosphere associated with the spin classes and figured if I enjoyed riding a stationary bike in a hot, sweaty room with strangers, I might like to ride a real bike outside. So I bought a used road bike.”
The Overlander was Jordan’s first adventure-by-bike camping experience. He says he went for it because R.J. did and had a great time. “Bikes, beer, and camping – I had to sign up.” I asked Jordan what he dug most about the trip. “I had a couple of favorite things. One is the Aid Stations! I’d grin ear-to-ear every time I saw the aid station canopy. I’m new to bikepacking, so I enjoyed checking out all the different bike setups. On day two or three, the route had a long gravel descent—that was my JAM!”
A takeaway for Jordan was that “Bikepacking is for everyone. No matter your age, fitness, or skill level, grab a bike, hit the road or trail, and have fun. I also learned that I could ride further than I thought. Before the Ochoco Overlander, my longest ride was around 35 miles.” Semi-supported events are a great introduction to adventure cycling for this reason. You get an opportunity to go further without the most daunting consequences typical of bikepacking. It’s a stepping stone to bridge that gap from 30-mile road rides to multi-day backcountry trips.
For some, supported events are the only way they’d like to participate in bikepacking. For others, supported bikepacking is plain ole blasphemy – a total oxymoron. That’s what’s so dope about it all, though. There is no right way to do it. Some people sprint for a mile then stop to hit their vape pen and sing a little Shania Twain, eat some candy then pedal past you again only to stop at the top of the next roller for another hit of Shania. Some folks wear chamois, some ski in jeans. Some fools prefer knobby tires and some like ‘em slick. The reasonable keep a steady pace, possibly annoyed by the guy belting out Shania as he leap-frogs. Some people need the risk of danger to feel motivated to do the thing while others need to feel safe to do the thing. It can seem counter-intuitive: a supported version of something that is usually revered for being wholly self-reliant. If you’ve only done self-supported bike adventures, may I suggest opening to the idea of semi-supported events? It’s pretty fun to have the contrast and do things differently than your norm, geek out over set-up and food hacks, and to witness the joy and friendship that cycling brings to so many.
There aren’t many events out there that create shared space for the adventure cycling novice and bikepacking expert to have an experience on the bike that is new to both parties. The Ochoco Overlander feels like the opposite of gatekeeping. There’s something ultra rad about things that remind us we’ve got commonality, especially when we’re on extreme ends of a spectrum. Jordan assures, “If you’re thinking about the Ochoco Overlander, do yourself a favor and sign up! It’s a great event with plenty of support. You’ll meet some cool people and check out some great views. What more could you want?”
Hop on over to goodbikeco.com to learn more about the 2023 Salsa Cycles Ochoco Overlander and stoke yourself out.